The circumstances that have compelled The New York Times to publish an op-ed from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are strikingly similar to those that led “the paper of record” to publish a plaintive appeal for peace from Vladimir Putin in the autumn of 2013.
Despite his statements to the contrary, the last thing that President Barack Obama wanted to do in that year was to go to war with Bashar al-Assad in order to make good on his own hastily drawn red line. Surely, The Times thought it was helping by publishing Putin’s suggestion that the United States subject its national security considerations to a Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council.
The op-ed was a repulsive display. In his piece for The Times, Putin insisted that he wanted to protect the integrity of the United Nations, prevent Islamist conflicts in Syria from spilling over that country’s borders, preserve America’s moral authority by preventing it from equipping brutal Islamist militias, and defended Assad’s contention that it was opposition forces that were responsible for the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations.
“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States,” Putin wrote. “Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it.”
“Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us,’” he continued.
I’d bet that positively kills in Eastern Ukraine today… Literally.
Obama wanted to extricate himself from having to live up to his self-set obligations, and the Russian-backed proposal that provided the means to remove chemical weapons from Syria peacefully seemed like a good idea at the time. Today, however, chemical weapons are still used on civilian areas, the United States has no moderate force to partner with in Syria in order to oust Assad from power, and the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front are the targets of international coalition airstrikes.
The Times thought it was helping, but it was only demonstrating its predictable and partisan tendency to defer to Obama’s fleeting political priorities regardless of whether they advance American grand strategy.
Surely, the same could be said of The Times’ decision to publish Zarif’s robust defense of the increasingly dubious framework nuclear deal negotiated in Switzerland. Those terms were already unacceptable to members of the American government concerned with Israeli security and regional stability before the Islamic Republic began “revising” them.
Already, Obama’s insistence that sanctions relief in exchange for abiding by the terms of a deal must be phased appears to be wavering in the face of resistance from Tehran, which wants all sanctions lifted immediately and up front. The U.S. Senate has forced the president to acknowledge its role in legitimizing international agreement, and compelled Obama to submit to the kind of scrutiny from congress he sought to avoid lest he face an embarrassing veto override vote backed by members of his own party.
With things looking grim for the so-called nuclear deal with Iran, enter The Times and Zarif.
“Iranian foreign policy is holistic in nature,” Zarif wrote of his country, which just so happens to command influence over proxy forces in command of at least four Middle Eastern capitals. “This is not due to habit or preference, but because globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete. Nothing in international politics functions in a vacuum. Security cannot be pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others. No nation can achieve its interests without considering the interests of others.”
“One cannot confront Al Qaeda and its ideological siblings, such as the so-called Islamic State, which is neither Islamic nor a state, in Iraq, while effectively enabling their growth in Yemen and Syria,” Zarif continued.
He goes on to repeatedly call for a “regional dialogue” to determine the fate of the various proving grounds in which the Arab World’s Sunni nations have undertaken military operations in order to roll back expanding Iranian influence.
While this cooperation must be kept to relevant regional stakeholders, existing institutional frameworks for dialogue, and especially the United Nations, must be utilized. The secretary general could furnish the necessary international umbrella. A regional role for the United Nations, already envisaged in the Security Council resolution that helped end the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, would help alleviate concerns and anxieties, particularly of smaller countries; provide the international community with assurances and mechanisms for safeguarding its legitimate interests; and link any regional dialogue with issues that inherently go beyond the boundaries of the region.
Zarif’s focus in this op-ed is telling. His mission was not shoring up domestic American support for a nuclear deal alone, but also coupling that agreement with the necessity of curbing regional violence. The Iranian foreign minister has drawn an explicit link between his country’s nuclear program and the rapidly deteriorating regional security environment. His contention is that the international community must defer to Iran’s position, and acknowledge the new status quo on the ground in Yemen. Of course, it is all couched in diplomatic niceties like “sovereignty,” “dignity,” “shared objectives,” and “recognized principles.” Just the kind of flowery language appropriate for consigning millions to a violent and insecure future over foie gras with black truffle shavings and a Meursault Premier Cru.
Just as it did in 2013, The Times surely thinks it is helping advance Obama’s interests with this op-ed. Just as in 2013, however, this op-ed is likely to have the opposite effect.